Queer Arts Festival's Queertopia is open to wide interpretation

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Painted ironing boards, supersized paper dolls, and wall-mounted chairs: the search for identity takes a wild array of forms in the visual-arts exhibit at this year’s Queer Arts Festival.

      The show, at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Tuesday (July 27) to August 14, has grown, along with the multimedia festival, from a small community exhibit more than 10 years ago to a juried, 23-artist production with installations that will fill the facility’s sizable exhibition hall. The event overlaps with Pride weekend celebrations. The theme is Queertopia, and the range of responses to it speaks to where the gay community is at these days, suggests Jeff Gibson, associate producer of the visual-arts show and president of the Pride in Art Society that produces the event.

      “With the queer community, we’ve succeeded a lot and this is sort of a celebration of that. But the other question is, where do we go now and how do we define ourselves?” Gibson, a well-known local artist himself, tells the Straight, sitting in his False Creek home. “The question for me has been, ”˜What do I do now that we’ve won the battle?’ You can sometimes define yourself as oppressed as a group, but you need to move on.”

      Subtitled The Best Place on Earth, the show is meant to riff on the idea of a post–Olympics Vancouver, and what the ideal, gay-friendly world might look like. In short, it’s about the search for an identity.

      “It’s a big community, and as much as we try to define ourselves, it’s not an easy task,” explains Gibson. “There’s not one group of words or concepts that we can use to really define ourselves. It’s my view that we shouldn’t be limiting. So we often come up with the alphabet soup,” he adds smiling, referring to the all-encompassing LGBT.

      Often, art can look at identity in ways that go beyond those labels. But the pieces in Queertopia reflect the vast diversity of the community, and in many cases envision a utopia where all communities can coexist.

      Some, like Karina Kalvaitis’s Annadale 1 and 2, are not at all overt. She’s fashioned exquisite mobiles from felt balls, glass, ceramic, and wire. They look like little solar systems, in greens and browns, with anemonelike attachments on each little orb. How do they interpret Queertopia? Says Gibson: “It’s this universal planet system with all kinds of activity going on, and every planet has its own subcultures going on.”

      Similarly inclusive is Dana Ayotte’s Gethen Womb rains down in Kemmer, a huge, welded-steel-rod-and-red-fabric “womb” that hangs from the ceiling and drips down red ribbons in a striking symbol of the birthplace of a diverse array of people. Elsewhere, Adrian Fehr’s Us and Them finds two circles of chairs mounted on the wall, a plea for communities to connect. As Gibson says, pointing out the Ferris-wheel effect, “It asks, ”˜How do we navigate this ride?’?”

      Other pieces are more personal, exploring individual identity. Wendy Sexsmith presents portraits inspired by photos taken at recent Pride parades, painted onto old wooden ironing boards—those bastions of housewives and domesticity—in her playful “Permanently pressed” series. Suzy Stroet has crafted the larger-than-life-sized Paper Doll, modelled on herself, complete with clothes on hangers—a cocktail dress, a more masculine sweatshirt, wigs, and much more—that viewers can place on the figure. Meanwhile, Sambiamb’s I work hard for this gender plays out like a giant comic strip posted across the wall, with panels that span everything from hormone therapy to wearing a dress. And Sakino Sepúlveda’s The New Mexican Family is a traditional painted family portrait, except there are two Latino dads standing with four children.

      “The political side is important, but at the same time there’s a human scale to the work,” explains Gibson. “There’s a tendency to be more political, but I try to remember we need to tell the personal stories, the personal pain and growth that the individual has gone through.”

      It can be personal or political, or just plain fun. Take a look at Noel Silver’s loving, symbolist-meets-psychedelic painted portrait, Heath Ledger, which resurrects the star and reimagines him as a gay-friendly sex symbol, complete with a revealing skeleton-cowboy tank top.

      Queertopia is open to wide interpretation, as the overall theme also will be in the festival’s music, comedy, theatre, and spoken word. See www.prideinart.ca/2010 for the full schedule, from tributes to Cole Porter to standup by Darcy Michael.